Probably the biggest difference between Catholics and Protestants lies in our beliefs about the infallible authorities God has given us to guide our faith. While it’s tough to generalize about all Protestants, it’s safe to say that the traditional Protestant position on this question is very different from the Catholic view. The Reformation was in large part based on a principle called sola scriptura,a Latin phrase meaning “Scripture alone,” so for Protestants, Scripture is the only infallible authority in matters of divine revelation. It’s the only source that they accept as an infallible guide for their beliefs.
In contrast, while we Catholics agree that Scripture is supremely important, we don’t believe that it’s the only infallible guide to our faith. We believe that Sacred Tradition is just as important and authoritative as the Bible and that the Magisterium of the Church (the pope and all the bishops of the world in communion with him) can infallibly teach about faith and morals. Taken together, these three authorities form the supreme rule of our faith. Scripture and Tradition contain God’s revelation to us, and the Magisterium authoritatively interprets their contents.
So how can we decide between these two points of view? How can we tell if the Protestant or Catholic understanding of infallible authorities is right? This is a big topic, and we can’t go into all the issues involved in it, but let’s take a look at an important piece of the puzzle: Scripture’s teaching on the authority of the Magisterium. There’s a key incident in the New Testament that clearly teaches that Christians are bound to accept and obey the infallible teachings of the Church’s official leaders, and that goes a long way towards showing that the Catholic position on this question is correct.
The Council of Jerusalem
In the early years of our faith, there was a controversy about the entrance of Gentiles into the Church. Some thought that they needed to follow the Law of Moses, and others believed that Christians are no longer bound to obey it.
As a result, the Apostles and “elders” (this is one of the words the New Testament uses to refer to what we today call bishops; the other is “overseer”) met in Jerusalem and held a council to resolve this issue, and we read about this council in chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles. Acts tells us that there was a lot of debate about this question (Acts 15:6-7), but at the end of the day, they decided that Gentile converts did not have to follow the Law of Moses (Acts 15:19-29).
Afterwards, the council sent their teaching out to all the local churches “for observance” (Acts 16:4), meaning that the faithful were supposed to accept and obey the decision they had reached. In other words, this was a binding decree meant to guide the faith of the Church; it’s the earliest recorded example of the Magisterium’s authority to teach infallibly.
Significantly, the New Testament doesn’t say that this authority ever came to an end. We never read that the Magisterium used to have this authority but then lost it somewhere along the way. Instead, as far as the Bible is concerned, this is simply a gift that the Magisterium has and will continue to have as long as the Church continues to exist.
A Self-Defeating Doctrine
Once we realize this, we can see that the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura is actually self-defeating. Scripture itself tells us that it’s not the only infallible authority in questions pertaining to our faith. It teaches that God has given us other authorities to guide us, and one of them is the teaching office of the Church. The Magisterium can infallibly teach about our faith and bind us to those teachings, just like it did 2,000 years ago when the Church experienced its first recorded theological controversy.